A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Long Day's Journey Into Night

A memorable production of Eugene O’Neill’s tragic masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night depicts “the four haunted Tyrones” in a thinly-veiled account of O’Neill’s parents and his older brother Jamie on one day in their lives in their summer home in New London, Connecticut.  O’Neill presented the manuscript as a wedding anniversary gift to his wife Carlotta, written, he says, “with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness.”  Carlotta reports that as he worked on the play each day, he would emerge from his room red-eyed and looking years older than when he had entered.

The cast of four is perfect in their recreation of the family that O’Neill, on completing the play,  described to critic and friend George Jean Nathan as “trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving, but still doomed never to be able to forget.”

Brian Dennehy is father James Tyrone, a famous actor as was O’Neill’s. Now older, Tyrone realizes that he had sold out, taken the easy way by touring in trashy money-making melodramas rather than developing his talent by playing in Shakespeare’s works.  Regretting the loss, he rationalizes that he needed to support his family, whom he blames rather than himself.  As the mother, Vanessa Redgrave is brilliant, creating an unforgettable Mary, with  knotted, arthritic hands and large, sad eyes, blank with morphine.  She blames her husband for her addiction, having been introduced to the drug by a cheap doctor he hired.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is older brother Jamie, drunk most of the time, ascribing his drinking to his disappointment as a failed actor, unable to fulfill his father’s expectations.  As the three attempt to escape responsibility by blaming another family member, Edmund (impressively played by Robert Sean Leonard), the younger brother in whom O’Neill sees himself, is diagnosed with tuberculosis. It is feared that his tightfisted father will send him to a state hospital where the care will be inadequate.

 As the play opens on a note of hope, Mary is home from her “cure” looking rested and healthy   But by the end of act one, she is reverting to her addiction and blaming the summer house: “I’ve never felt it was my home.  It was wrong from the start.  Everything was done in the cheapest way,” she tells Edmund. “Your father would never spend the money to make it right.”  In the present production, director Robert Falls sees the woman as central in the family (as he did in his production of “Death of a Salesman”).  Here, Mary is the catalyst as her sons and husband at first are hopeful and then despair.  It is she who starts them on their journey of guilt with her blames laid on them for her state – husband James for hiring the doctor who started her on drugs; Jamie for giving baby Eugene the measles that led to his death, and Edmund for being born and causing her pain that could not be relieved except by morphine.  Each tries to escape in a different way, Jamie and his father by drink, Edmund by going off to sea, and Mary by drugs, but as she says, when James tells her to “forget the past,” there is no escape: “How can I?  The past is the present isn’t it?  It’s the future, too.  We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”

      Late in the play, with hope lost, father James is drinking and playing cards with Edmund, and in a long speech recounts the hardships of a poverty-stricken childhood and fears of the poorhouse that led to parsimony and settling for a moneymaking play when “I could have been a great Shakespearean actor.”( Mary remembers the tours as “One night stands, cheap hotels, dirty trains, leaving children, never having a home.”)  But the lure of the “forty thousand net profit…a fortune in those days—or even in these” kept him touring in the box office success: “What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth –“

 Mr. Dennehy intelligently realizes that an actor will drop his “stage English” when at home, and plays the father with a bog Irish accent, to remind us of his humble beginnings.  O’Neill’s projected final series of plays, of which he wrote only the first two (“A Touch of the Poet” and  “Many Mansions”) had as its theme the materialism of early immigrants whose pursuit of gain lost them the opportunity to develop ideals offered by the new land.

      The fog and the foghorn symbolically surround the family like a blanket of memory.  Other symbols include Mary’s searching, her glasses, and the wedding dress that she is carrying, in the emotionally devastating final scene, still seeking her lost life.  As Mary in her schoolgirl voice recalls her early hopes, ending with meeting the famous James Tyrone, the men despair.  In “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” O’Neill has wrought, through his understanding and forgiveness, the effect of a true tragedy -- pity and terror.